History of the Leach Pottery

Founded in 1920 by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, the Leach Pottery, St Ives, is among the most respected and influential potteries in the world. Over the last hundred years it has forged the shape of Studio Pottery in the UK and beyond. Scores of potters, students and apprentices, from across the world have come to the Leach Pottery to train, creating a uniquely international environment in the heart of Cornwall and maintaining the Pottery's creative principle of East/West exchange. Today, the Leach Pottery Studio, Museum and Gallery continue developing Bernard Leach's historic legacy.

The Leach Pottery is considered by many to be the birthplace of British studio pottery. One of the great figures of 20th century art, Bernard Leach played a crucial pioneering role in creating an identity for artist potters across the world.

Early Years 1887 to 1909: Bernard Leach

Bernard Leach with grandparents in Japan

Bernard Leach with grandparents in Japan

Bernard Howell Leach was born Hong Kong on January 5th 1887. As his mother died in child birth he was taken to Kyoto in Japan by his maternal grandparents. Four years later his father remarried and he brought Leach back to Hong Kong and then on to Singapore when he was appointed a judge.

In 1897 when Leach was 10 he was brought back to England by his Great Uncle Granville to attend Beaumont College – a Jesuit school – in Old Windsor. Leach left school at 16 having excelled only in drawing, elocution and cricket and enrolled at The Slade School of Art, London. In 1904 his father was diagnosed with liver cancer so Leach left The Slade to be with his father in Bournemouth. As his father was extremely ill Leach promised to seek a career in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC). In November of that year, his father died.

When Leach was 18 he moved to Manchester to study for the bank entrance examination and stayed with his Uncle and Aunt. It was here that he met his cousin Muriel and fell in love with her. In 1906 he took up position as a junior bank clerk in the HSBC in London. However, he soon became disillusioned with banking and he was forbidden to pursue his relationship with Muriel. He therefore resigned from the bank and travelled to Dorset and North Wales to draw and paint. At 21 he inherited a modest income so enrolled at The London School of Art in Kensington where he was taught etching by Frank Brangwyn who was an inspiration to Leach.

Japan 1908 to 1920: Bernard Leach

Leach met Muriel again in 1908 and they became engaged and planned to marry. Leach decided to return to Japan and went ahead of Muriel with the intention of teaching the Japanese etching. Muriel joined him in Tokyo and they then married. Leach painted, etched, produced wood cuts and designs for art magazine covers. Muriel taught English.

David Andrew was born in 1911 and in this year Leach and a Japanese friend Tomimoto Kenkichi were invited to a raku party. He was enthralled by the firing process and wrote, "By this to me a miracle, I was carried away to a new world. Enthralled, I was on the spot seized with the desire to take up the craft".This was a pivotal time in Leach's life and he decided to follow the path of ceramics. He was recommended and then studied with Urano Shigekichi , known by his title of Kenzan VI, two days a week for two years.

He learnt throwing, brushwork decoration in the ancient style and different firing methods. He then set up a pottery in his garden and started to produce work to exhibit.In 1913 his second son William Michael was born. Leach had successful exhibitions in 1914 and published his first booklet, A Review 1909-1914. This booklet was issued to accompany the exhibition. However, he was becoming disillusioned with Japan and its growing westernisation so he moved to China alone and fell under the influence of Dr Alfred Westharp, a Prussian writer.On September 19th 1915 Eleanor, his first daughter, was born in Japan. Leach reluctantly returned to Muriel for Christmas but then went back to China with his family. However, Westharp caused friction and interfered in their family life although Leach was still under his demanding influence. Consequently, he set up home in Peking as medical help was needed for Michael.

Yanagi Soetsu – another friend of Leach from the Shirakaba group -visited and told him about his own visit to Korean potteries. This rekindled Leach's interest and Yanagi persuaded him in 1916 to return to Japan. A year later he set up a pottery on Yanagi's estate in Abiko. He developed his own style based on traditional Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English slipware. This gave him the satisfaction he had been seeking.

It was around this time that he met Hamada Shoji who became his soul mate. Unfortunately in 1919 his pottery burnt to the ground. Viscount Kuroda – an artist trained in France – offered Leach a kiln in Tokyo with the help and assistance of professional potters so he could continue producing raku, stoneware and porcelain. He had a successful exhibition of his work and a small book An English Artist in Japan was produced by his friends to mark his impending departure from Japan. In the summer of 1920 Leach with Hamada set sail for England.


Leach Pottery 1920 to 1944

Edgar Skinner – a friend of Leach's father introduced him to the St. Ives Guild of Handicrafts which was supported by local wealthy philanthropist called Francis Horne who lived at Tremorna in Carbis Bay. She offered him a capital loan of £2500 to set up his pottery with Hamada and also an assured income of £250 for 3 years. During this year Leach's twin daughters Ruth Jessamine and Elizabeth Massey, known as Betty were born.

A site at the top of the Stennack was found, to build the pottery and the first climbing kiln and raku kiln. Bricks were used from the old dynamite works at Hayle. Hamada used iron barrel staves for arch support. In 1921 Leach and Hamada produce individual pieces of stoneware in the three-chamber, wood-burning climbing kiln. In the round, up-draught kiln they were making decorated earthenware dishes, slip decorated, lead-glazed tableware and raku. Trees and Rhododendron were used for firing and were brought down from Knill's Steeple.

The early firings were not successful as neither of them had much experience of controlled firing. Only 10 to 15% of the early pots were successful. It was also difficult to find a good clay body. They found earthen ware clay near St. Erth and obtained stoneware from Dorset and Ball clay from Devon. They burnt bracken for wood ash glazes and experimented widely adapting new materials and rediscovering old skills. In 1922 as the family was so much bigger as Leach and Muriel had five children, they moved to the Count House in Carbis Bay.

In 1923 Hamada returned to Japan as he was concerned about his family following the disaster of the Kanto earthquake. In the same year Michael Cardew joined the pottery. Leach continued to experiment with many forms and techniques. He held raku parties on Thursdays and Muriel served Cornish teas for 1 shilling (the equivalent of £1.50 today). They exhibited with no success initially but Leach joined many societies and groups and continued to exhibit. Matsubayashi – an excellent technician - arrived in St. Ives from Japan and was so appalled with the kiln he pulled it down and rebuilt it.

The first firing in the new kiln was in May 1924, during which, there was a ceremonial offering of salt. Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie joined the pottery as a paying student for one year along with Norah Braden. As others joined the pottery a strong sense of community arose although there were serious financial problems.In 1925 Leach met Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst at Dartington Hall in Devon. This American couple had a major impact on the development of the pottery in St. Ives and Leach's finance as Dorothy has inherited money from her family.

Michael Cardew left St. Ives in 1926 to set up his own pottery in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. However, the pottery continued in financial difficulties so 'shares' were issued. In 1928 Leach published: The Potter's Outlook, Handworkers' Pamphlet No 3, (New Handworkers' Gallery) In 1930 both David Leach and Harry Davis – an accomplished young potter joined the pottery. Laurie Cookes joined the pottery a year later as a shop assistant and secretary. Soon after joining the pottery she started a relationship with Leach.

The Elmhirsts invited him to Dartington in 1932 to set up a pottery and also to teach. It was at Dartington that Leach met Mark Tobey – an American artist - who introduced him to the Bahá'í faith. Whilst Leach was at Dartington and on a lecture tour of Japan he left Harry Davis in charge at St. Ives. On his return from Japan Leach informed Muriel that their marriage was over. He then bought a caravan and toured England with Laurie Cookes in 1935. The couple settled in Dartington and built his pottery and a wooden house called 'The Cabin' in 1937.

Leach also started work on A Potter's Book, which was his most important publication.In 1938 David Leach returned to St Ives after studying pottery management for two/three years in Stoke-on- Trent. He initiated a wide range of changes. These included electricity, machinery and oil to fire the kiln which shortened the firing time by 20/25%. Leach Standard Ware was then produced in stoneware. There was now a permanent team that included William (Bill) Marshall who joined at age 14 and had a major influence on the pottery. In 1940 Faber and Faber published: A Potter's Book and Leach joined the Bahá'í faith.

David Leach was called up in 1941 and Leach returned to pottery and lived in Pottery Cottage which had been built in 1927. Unfortunately a Land mine destroyed part of Pottery Cottage and damaged part of kiln shed. However, the pottery continued production with a small team helped by conscientious objectors. Leach separated and divorced Muriel and then married Laurie in 1944 and the two of them adopted Maurice, an evacuee infant who she had taken care of during the war.

Leach Pottery & International Tours 1945 to 1956

After the Second World War David Leach was made a partner in the pottery and consolidated the team with well-trained apprentices. The first catalogue of Standard Ware was issued in 1946.In the early 1950s Leach toured extensively in Scandinavia, USA and Japan. Meanwhile he passed the running of the pottery on to David. During his lecture tour of the USA - in 1953 - with Yanagi and Hamada, Leach met Janet Darnell – a young American potter. A year later they became intimate and planned to marry and live in Japan.

However this was not to be and they returned to St. Ives. Muriel died in 1955 and in 1956 Leach divorced Laurie and married Janet who then took over the running of the pottery. 

Bernard Leach with Shoji Hamada & Soetsu Yanagi, Dartington 1952

Bernard Leach with Shoji Hamada & Soetsu Yanagi, Dartington 1952

Honours & International Recognition 1957 to 1979: Bernard Leach

Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach with Janet after being given the Freedom of St Ives in 1968

Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach with Janet after being given the Freedom of St Ives in 1968

In the sixties Bernard travelled on many lecture tours and published more of his writings. Also he received many honours both from home and abroad.In 1960 Bernard and Janet had a successful tour of USA. Faber and Faber also published 'A Potter in Japan'.

In 1961 The Arts Council of Britain held a retrospective exhibition 'Fifty Years a Potter'. Leach was acknowledged as a master craftsman and his work was accepted as the standard by which others were judged.

He also visited Japan, Australia and New Zealand. It was at this time that he bought a small flat in a new development called Barnaloft which overlooked Porthmeor Beach in St.Ives. Leach received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1962. In 1966 Faber and Faber published 'Kenzan and his Tradition, the lives and times of Koetsu, Sotatsu, Korin, and Kenzan'. In the same year Leach went on lecture tours to Venezuela and Colombia, Honduras, USA and Japan. In Japan he was awarded Order of the Sacred Treasure 2nd Class. This was the highest honour given to a non national.

Leach travelled to Japan again in 1967 with Janet Leach. He stopped over in Hong Kong to search, unsuccessfully, for his mother's grave. In 1968 both Leach and Hepworth were bestowed the rare honour of Freedom of the Borough of St Ives by the Town Council. In the seventies Bernard published more of his writings. Also he received many more honours both from home and abroad In 1972 Kodansha published 'The Unknown Craftsman' translated and adapted from the work of Søetsu Yanagi.

A year later, Adams and Dart published 'Drawings, Verse & Belief'. Leach was also made a Companion of Honour (CH) The Japan Foundation awarded Leach the equivalent of the Nobel Prize during his final visit to Japan in 1974. A sudden and dramatic loss of sight brought his potting days to an end. At the same time the large climbing kiln that was built in 1923 was used less and less due to less production and complaints from neighbours so a gas kiln was introduced. In 1975 Kodansha published 'Hamada: Potter'.

There was another Retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1977 in his 90th year. Bill Marshall left the Leach Pottery after 39 years of service, broken only by the war. He set up his own pottery at Abbey Cottage in Lelant with his son Andrew. 1978 Shoji Hamada died in Japan. Faber and Faber published Leach's last writings 'Beyond East and West: Memoirs, Portraits and Essays'. On May 6th 1979 Leach died at St Michael's Hospital, Hayle after having had a heart attack in April of the same year. He was buried at Longstone Cemetery, Carbis Bay, St.Ives.

Leach Pottery 1979 to 2005

Following Bernard's death Janet Leach ceased production of the standard ware to focus on her own individual pots. She died in 1997, bequeathing the Pottery to Mary Redgrave, who continued to run the Pottery until her own death. The building was sold to a private buyer, Alan Gilham, before being acquired by Penwith District Council as part of the Leach Restoration Project.

On completion the Leach Pottery was handed over to the Bernard Leach (St Ives) Trust Ltd., a registered charity set up to manage the Leach Pottery.

Leach Pottery Today

We have an active team of potters onsite and a growing programme of courses and activities for people to get involved in.